Jacques Kallis will retire from tests after the Kingsmead Test. The timing of the announcement came as a bit of a shock this Christmas day. The snowflakes (it is a white Christmas in my part of the world) brought back memories of watching him bat in the winter Tests in SA over the years, notably in 2011- 2012 when he followed a pair in a test with a double century in his next innings.
Winter is an apt season to associate with a player so cool at the crease, and, as fans would sometimes complain, so cold and distant too. Winter is also about numbers, as one keeps a nervous watch on how low the mercury dips and how much wind chill the freezing gales cause. Kallis was all about numbers too. What do they tell us?
Kallis the batsman will retire with more than 13000 Test runs and 44 centuries, the second highest anyone has made after Tendulkar. He averages higher than any of the other greats of his generation- Ponting, Dravid, Tendulkar, Lara with the bat (in both tests and ODIs, incidentally). Kallis the bowler retires with 292 test wickets; Kallis the fielder has 199 catches at slip.
The debates and discussions on his place in the cricketing hall of fame can start now. Who was a better cricketer than Kallis? Sobers? Well, arguably, but by no means is it a foregone conclusion, unlike some so-called cricket experts would have us believe. One reason to put Sobers above Kallis as an allrounder would be that Sobers scored his runs faster. Another reason could be nostalgia, which papers over the cracks and keeps elevating retired players above current players in any sport. (These people who rate Sobers above Kallis purely because of nostalgia are also the people who would have said that Kallis was better if he were the retired player and Sobers the active player with their career statistics being the same as now.) Since everyone seems to make a case for Sobers, I will make my case for Kallis in this article.
Sobers was a brilliant attacking batsman and a crafty bowler. Kallis, in contrast, was a dependable, consistent batsman and a better bowler. The fact that Sobers could bowl various types of deliveries cannot hide the fact that he wasn’t an exceptional bowler of any of them. Yes, Sobers scored his runs faster, but Kallis took his wickets much quicker (once every 10 overs as opposed to once every 15 overs of Sobers). On his day, Kallis could swing the ball prodigiously, bowl at pace and even intimidate the best of batsmen by his bouncers. He touched speeds upward of 90 mph at his peak.
Overall, it is very close between the two of them. But Kallis’s ODI and T20 records gives him the edge, as does the fact that in Tests, he scored almost 5000 runs and 18 centuries more than Sobers while also taking 60 wickets more. Also, in the modern era, which takes a relentless toll on the body, Kallis just played on and on for 18 years, overseeing multiple formats, bowling, batting and fielding in all three, match after match, day after day.
Incredibly, in spite of his dream career, he remains the most unsung of cricketers. Perhaps, this has something to do with cricket not being as popular a sport in SA as in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, England, or Australia. If he were from my country, India, he would have been a national phenomenon, a cricketing God. People would perhaps have constructed temples for him. It is a pity that even among connoisseurs, he is underappreciated.
That Kallis did not have any truly outstanding moments is held as a flaw. Well, if he racked up these numbers without hitting say a triple, it just means that he scored runs all the time. There is something to be said for consistency. Why would scoring a triple once every three innings be considered better than scoring a century once every innings? Kallis wasn’t that kind of a player, the flashy but mighty-on-his-day one. He was more rock than rock star, a player who wanted to contribute with the bat or ball in every test he played. The language of his cricket was more prose than poetry, more substance than style. It was almost a cut-to-the-chase statement of fact, like the title of this article, rather than purple prose.
For all that, there were days when Kallis could inspire awe by his batting. First, about the defence. I remember writing during the India tour of SA in 2010 while watching Kallis in his home test, “The most amazing natural wonder and immovable object in Cape town is not the table mountain, it is Jacques Kallis”. He proved me right by standing between India and victory in that test, like he did so many times during his glittering career.
With Kallis, it wasn’t all about just occupying the crease. He could be the irresistible force when he wanted to be. He had all the shots as a batsman. His driving square of the wicket was always of the highest class. The cover driving was a sight for sore eyes too. Like most South African batsmen, he pulled and hooked very well. When the mood took him, he could launch the ball into the stands for gigantic sixes (A oneday match where he hit Muralitharan for three or four sixes comes to mind, as also an innings in the 1999 world cup). As a bowler, he got swing on tracks where no one else could find it. He could bowl them all- yorkers, bouncers and even the slower balls in limited overs cricket. He is the cricketer we all dreamt of when we were kids, someone who could handle the best of bowlers with aplomb, intimidate the best of batsmen with his bowling and snaffle the toughest of catches easily in the field.
If we are lucky, some blessed day in the future, there may come a batsman better than Bradman, Lara and Tendulkar. If the cricketing Gods smile upon us, we may see a better bowler than McGrath, Muralitharan, Akram and Steyn too. But there will never ever be another Jacques Henry Kallis.
Treasure every ball that he bowls in this match. Admire every catch or stop in the slips. Marvel at the purity of his batting, be it the textbook defence or the classically brilliant strokeplay. Celebrate the greatest cricketer of them all one last time before the willow falls silent, the deliveries cease traversing their beautiful path past the outside edge, and the hands that pouch everything vanish from the slips.